The death of Cecil the Lion has taken Western media by storm with publications like The Washington Post even going as far as starting an article with “While the world mourns the death of Cecil the Lion.” As a result, Senator Robert Menendez of New Jersey is spearheading legislation to stop acts like this, even stating that “Cecil’s death was a preventable tragedy.” That’s right: Apparently we’re calling this a tragedy. It’s a tragedy to the point that some people have even appropriated the #BlackLivesMatter movement and changed it to #CatLivesMatter, which is simply racist on every level, as it dehumanizes an entire civil rights movement and inherently belittles it by equating human life with those of animals.
Aside from the legitimate reasons of conservation, it appears this public outrage is being fueled by the fact that Cecil, or wildlife in general, is core to the Western view of the African continent. A lot of people’s first exposure to the idea of Africa was through things like Disney’s The Lion King. This portrayal of wildlife has also contributed to how we in the West always refer to Africa as a whole–we forget that there are different regions and countries and always say ridiculous things like “I’m going to Africa” in general. This is directly a result of the fact that wildlife is devoid of borders and therefore isn’t limited by them. Thus, the continental Africa of our minds becomes a sprawling land, where everything coexists with one another–so who would need to make any distinction when referring to the continent?
This, combined with how Africans are perpetually portrayed in the West as poor and in need has created even more of a reliance on animals to represent the continent. We wonder: How could a people who are so poor possibly have any kind of culture that is interesting enough to be shared with the world? This sentence summarizes pretty much every portrayal of African culture in Western media.g Any time a movie is actually about an African person, it’s usually because they are leaving their “cultureless” homes to experience the wonders of the West, or white people are coming with their guiding hands to save the war-torn countries, as is the case in Eddie Murphy’s Coming to America, and Leonardo DiCaprio’s Blood Diamond.
The farce doesn’t restrict itself to on-screen culture. When Busch Gardens opened its first theme park in Tampa Bay, Florida, they originally called it Busch Gardens: The Dark Continent. They managed to pick a title that reminds me of Joseph Conrad’s novel Heart of Darkness, which portrayed Africans as savages. By referring to it as the “Dark Continent,” you get a sense that by going to the park, you will discover the mysterious and varied nature that is the African continent. Instead, you just ride some animal themed attractions and get to see live African animals. In contrast, Busch Gardens Williamsburg highlights human life and achievement from all over Western Europe with attractions like Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre, and an Italian section, which is based on the Renaissance. To the Tampa Bay location’s credit, they at least picked a few countries to represent Africa in their park, but that’s like saying the hit movie Madagascar was progressive because it wasn’t titled “Africa.” Which is still ridiculous, when you think about how Dreamworks decided it was a good idea to portray even a whole country with just dancing lemurs and angry wildcats.
So to people who are mourning the death of Cecil, get over it. There are many more tragic things to mourn and even fight for in Africa than a lion. For too long Africa’s wildlife has been portrayed as rich and diverse while its people have been a monolith. Africans come from all walks of life and in all shades of color. As someone who never really considered myself African until very recently, I want to end this narrative of Africa. I hate that I was part of this narrative for most of my life, and because of that I want to keep exploring my African identity. But maybe that’s for another article. Who’s to say?